Prose, Poem, or Prose-Poem? Does it Matter?
One area of contemporary poetry that interests me is a blending of familiar categories, especially what’s usually defined as prose and what’s usually defined as a poem. Each of the terms suggest a set of conventions or essential criteria: a particular piece of writing must conform to these if it is to be understood as either ‘prose’ or ‘poetry’. This then raises the question: what are these crucial features? Since so many examples of contemporary poetry are presented in free verse, often with little or no attention to rhythm or sound, the most obvious and distinctive attribute that seems to remain, as I see it, is the line break or use of white space. Conversely, a line of prose as we know usually ends where the words find the right-hand side of the page and strike the margin. Perhaps it is arguable, too, that poetry is marked by concision or an economy of language: a subject that is potentially rather large has been crammed into a tight space, where what is excised is often just as important as what is included. Like the aforementioned white space, the elision of words, the use of metaphor and/or a sparseness of descriptive detail are often constitutional of what counts as a poem.
How then do we recognise a prose poem? Often they will disregard the line break and restrictive use of description – and often they will disregard other common markers. It would be difficult to agree on the binding characteristics. Often, like visual art, the context – other works more clearly poems or the publication itself – may help to suggest how the reader frames the piece of writing. Rather than persevere with a debate on the definition, I would prefer to notice and celebrate that today, in the world of contemporary writing, such definitions seem to be in process of becoming less important. Equally, with wonderful creative results, standard forms are becoming dove-tailed and mashed up in some intriguing and experimental ways. For me, in the spirit of collage, artistic practice is often about clashing together the incongruous, exploring tension and conflict; and this is also the case with familiar literary forms or registers. Originality – if such a word has any value or purchase today – consists in writing the interstices or imbrication of different forms of writing and holding back from assigning the end result a particular label. Unbroken Journal is certainly one publication where such innovations may appear.
I would like to name ‘Last Exit to Luton’, by Fran Lock (pictured), as an example of the kind of writing I refer to. This is a present favourite: I appreciate how unsure the ‘poem’ is of how it is to be read. As Glyn Maxwell notes on the Poetry Society page, ‘This poem had to overcome the fact I didn’t know if it was a poem or a prose-poem or prose and I wasn’t sure it knew. Maybe it doesn’t care, I don’t’.
I would like to see more risks along these lines; along with an attempt to write hybrid forms that incorporate not only familiar literary forms though also, potentially, registers which are seemingly incompatible, such as poetic language and academic commentary. In a culture and society that is also increasingly challenging what is fundamental to identity and binary thinking, the pursuit I’m advocating is all the more timely.